The Islamic world is wide and various, its points of view almost as numerous as its people. And Islam in China, with its long tradition of women-only mosques, provides a good illustration, says Michael Wood.
In the middle of the plain of the Yellow River in Henan province is the city of Kaifeng. The old capital of the Song Dynasty, 1,000 years ago, it was one of the greatest cities anywhere in the world before the 19th Century – and a meeting place of peoples and faiths.
In the narrow alleys of the old town are Buddhist and Daoist temples, a shrine to the Goddess of Mercy, always teeming with people. There are Christian churches, and Muslim mosques – both religions came in the 7th Century (China has some of the oldest Muslim communities outside the Near East).
There is even the last remnant of China’s Jewish community, which came from Persia and perhaps Yemen too, in the Song Dynasty.
Most fascinating though, are the women-only mosques, and even more surprising is that they have female prayer leaders – women imams.
The main women’s mosque is close to the central men’s mosque, across an alley lined with food stalls with steaming tureens and white-capped bakers making the local spiced bread.
The prayer leader here is Guo Jingfang, who was trained by her father, an imam at the men’s mosque.
She took me through Kaifeng’s winding alleys, stopping on the way to hold animated chats with neighbours and to pick up an order from the local cake maker, until finally we came to the ornamental gate of what looked like a little Confucian temple. Inside was a tiny flagged courtyard with a tiled roof festooned with vines and yellow flowers.
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This is Wangjia Alley mosque, said to be the oldest surviving women’s mosque in Kaifeng, built in 1820. The prayer hall is scarcely more than a spacious living room covered with carpets and chairs. It could hardly fit more than 50 people but it is one of the loveliest places of worship I have seen anywhere.
Outside, in dappled sunlight, we met members of the community and their prayer leader. Once a factory worker, she came from a religious family and after five years of study had become an ahong – a woman prayer leader – though she sees her main job simply as teaching women to read the Koran.
We stood in the courtyard and chatted away. Guo Jingfang saw women’s mosques as a Chinese tradition but especially strong in Henan – there are 16 in Kaifeng and dozens more in the countryside around, along with small teaching schools in the big city, Zhengzhou, and in some smaller towns. Further afield, there are many more down south in Yunnan and in the north, but not in Muslim Xinjiang, where they follow a more traditional Central Asian brand of Sunni Islam.
As for how the tradition of women’s mosques started, we have to go back to the founding of the Ming Dynasty in the late 1300s, when the Muslim community – previously favoured guests – suddenly became an anxious and oppressed minority. Responding to the shock of the alien Mongol occupation, the early Ming rulers waged a chauvinistic war against non-Han peoples. Minorities now aroused hostility and suspicion and were subject to a brutal policy of assimilation – the Muslims were told they must marry Han people and not among themselves.
So the 15th Century was almost catastrophic for Chinese Islam. But in the late 16th Century things improved and among the Muslims a new cultural movement began, a revival of Islamic culture and education.
A century later Chinese Muslim philosophers were able to write erudite books showing how you could be a loyal Muslim and also loyal to the Chinese state. And at this point, at the grassroots, men realised how important women could be in preserving and transmitting the faith.
So women’s mosques grew out of a double movement in the Chinese Muslim world – the need to preserve the community, and the desire for women’s education.